In addition to these investments to support our organic growth opportunities and focused external initiatives, we repurchased $100 million of our stock in the third quarter. We look for a strong finish to 2011 with key performance metrics on or above trend line toward realizing our Vision 2015 objectives.
Going forward, we see a promising pipeline of small to mid-sized companies to further advance our external growth initiatives. We also continue to evaluate attractive organic growth opportunities to selectively employ capital. We'll provide a more detailed view of this next quarter as we outline our 2012 capital plan.
Moving to our performance in third quarter 2011. Sales of $862 million increased by $117 million or 16% versus last year, excluding the prior impact of exited businesses. Sales increased in all businesses and all regions. Adjusted earnings of $1.39 per diluted share increased 18% versus the year-ago quarter.
Looking at sales on a regional basis, Latin America led sales growth, up 26%, followed closely by Asia, which was up 23%. Sales in EMEA increased 16%, and sales in North America were up 5%.Our gross margin of $287 million increased by $33 million, or 13%, versus last year. On a percent basis, our 33% gross margin equaled that of last year as higher selling prices offset increased costs. SG&A of $107 million increased $11 million, or 12%, due to increased spending on targeted growth initiatives in our Agricultural Products business and, to a lesser extent, foreign exchange. Adjusted earnings before interest and tax of $149 million increased $16 million or 12% above last year. Let's take a more detailed look at the performance of our operating segments in the quarter. First, let me start with Specialty Chemicals. Third quarter revenue of $218 million increased 8% versus last year, driven by higher selling prices across the segment and volume growth in pharmaceutical excipients and lithium specialties. Segment earnings of $47.6 million were 1% higher than the prior quarter as the strong commercial performance was largely offset by higher raw material and energy costs and weather-related operating impact at our Argentina lithium facility incurred early in the quarter. Read the rest of this transcript for free on seekingalpha.com