Is Nanometrics (NASDAQ:NANO) a potential turnaround story? The semiconductor equipment maker recently announced the departure of CEO John Heaton. It did not provide a reason for his leaving.

Chief Strategy Officer Bruce Rhine was named interim CEO while the board searches for someone who wants the challenge permanently.

And a challenge it will be. Even the most cursory glance at the financials shows that the business was bloodied last year. Even though it grew revenue strongly, most of the growth was due to a pair of acquisitions. Gross margins dropped by nearly 12 percentage points to 40.7%, while operating expenses have surged. It's not too surprising that these ingredients gelled to create a large net loss of $22 million, along with operating cash flow of negative $16.7 million.

The balance sheet is ugly too. Partly because of acquisition and litigation costs, this company is as cash-poor as many subprime mortgage borrowers -- a paltry $8 million is left in the bank, although it does have access to a $15 million credit facility. Accounts receivable are way up, and inventories nearly doubled over the year.

The problem is not that it lives in a poor sector. KLA-Tencor (NASDAQ:KLAC) is doing well, and Rudolph (NASDAQ:RTEC) looks OK too. Nanometrics claims it has a solid position with memory customers, and memory manufacturers' wallets were wide open last year. If the company can't thrive in this environment, you have to wonder what it would take.

Despite last year's belly flop, there are reasons to be hopeful. Nanometrics products are used to increase yields in semiconductor fabrication plants, and spending on this type of equipment should grow faster than the overall semiconductor equipment industry. Furthermore, the interim CEO owns 7.6% of outstanding shares, according to the last proxy statement. He ought to be plenty motivated to get out of bed in the morning.

It looks to me like this company is worth keeping an eye on to see if it can cut costs and take advantage of the favorable trend that is going to continue pushing chip makers to buy this kind of equipment. If it does, shareholders will surely benefit.

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Fool contributor Dan Bloom owns shares of KLA-Tencor. The Fool has a disclosure policy.