HSBC Holdings' plan to trim and sharpen the focus of its North American business unit in an effort to boost its profit appears to be paying off.

The North American division of the London-based banking giant earned $555 million of pre-tax profit in the third quarter, up 15% from the same period last year. Overall, the global bank earned $5.7 billion on the quarter, 57% higher than a year ago.

In June, HSBC head Stuart Gulliver announced a new direction for the North American unit, which has struggled with regulatory and legal issues while lagging the company's other geographical regions in return on assets. Under Patrick Burke, who took over as head of North American operations a year ago, it planned to refocus on multinational commercial clients that do business throughout the North American Free Trade Association region, while placing less emphasis on consumer banking.

"Rebuilding NAFTA profitability is a work in progress, and will remain so until the end of 2017," said Stuart Gulliver, HSBC Holdings' chief executive, on a conference call Monday. "However, the initial signs are positive."

The U.S. arm's revenue increased 20% from the third quarter a year ago, Gulliver said, though he did not provide the dollar figure. (The company does not break out the financial results of its $190 billion-asset U.S. bank, which it reports with other North American country segments.)

The North American unit's profitability improved, but still trailed other regions. The unit's return on risk-weighted assets was 0.9%, up from 0.1% a year ago, but still worse than the 2.9% for Asia and 1.7% for Europe. The efficiency ratio for North America improved to 72% from 100%.

Expenses fell faster than revenue in the North American unit. Operating income fell 12%, to $1.9 billion, while expenses fell 33%, to $1.4 billion.

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